Just Between Us: From the Archives of Arlan Huang
For nearly six decades as a practicing artist, Arlan Huang has quietly collected art. While some of the pieces were purchased, much has been amassed through “art swaps,” friendly exchanges between fellow artists. “Just Between Us,” a group exhibition presented in partnership by Think!Chinatown and Pearl River Mart, highlights some of these works.
In 1974, Huang with partner Karl Matsuda opened their shop, Squid Frames. However, it was never just a framing business. A room in the shop acted as Huang’s studio, and it was there that artists would stop to chat, share advice, or keep each other company. It was also there that Arlan had serendipitous encounters with artists which often resulted in lasting relationships and the exchange of art.
Rather than illustrate his tastes, Huang’s archive memorializes a people. The central narrative isn’t market speculation but those serendipitous meetings with artists. For him, archiving has been equal parts a lifelong research project, an enchantment, and a collaboration.
Like a confidence between friends, intel given off the record, or a shared history or experience, this exhibition is “just between us.” The phrase evokes the major principles that form the bedrock of Huang’s collecting ethics: that art should circulate outside the nefarious concerns of the market, that it should not seek approval from heteropatriarchal white institutions, and that a secret language in the form of gossip and complaint forges the most precious and intimate of friendships.
Describing his archive, Huang said, “These are the relationships that have shaped my art and allowed me to express my voice. These are the artists I’ve bonded with through time and shared battles in search of Asian American eyes. And it is important that we all witness this gathering. It is evidence of ‘we.’”
“'Just Between Us’ weaves together art, conversation, mutual support and love that are the foundations of our neighborhood and community,” said Amy Chin, president of the board of Think!Chinatown. “It reaches across generations and offers a view of how an often elitist ‘art industry’ can live in and serve real local communities. Think!Chinatown is so pleased to partner with two of our favorite local heroes (Arlan and Pearl River Mart) to showcase this work.”
The works on view narrate both historic and deeply personal moments. As a longtime Chinatown resident, Huang collected photos by the celebrated photographer Corky Lee. As a member of the Asian American arts network, Godzilla, and the Chinatown-based collective Basement Workshop, Huang traded work with artists like Ken Chu, Tomie Arai, Hoyt Soohoo, and Bob Hsiang. As the owner of the frame shop Squid Frames, Huang kept longtime correspondence with conceptual artist Sol Lewitt.
An abundance of Asian Americans in the collection, such as Martin Wong and Alex Paik, often prompts Huang to consider it an “Asian American art collection.” Presented for the first time in this scale, the collection asks what Asian American art is and could be, and why Asian American identity and life continue to matter.
When considering exhibition spaces to show his archive, Huang only ever considered Pearl River Mart. “Pearl River is a family business that has kept the original mom and pop work ethic,” Huang said. “Like the neighborhood store it welcomes you like family. The gallery they carved out is a gift for us. And gifts are reciprocal. It’s the only place I want to show. It is by us for us.”
“Arlan Huang is a magical thinker who has never forgotten his roots,” said Joanne Kwong, president of Pearl River Mart. “His talent has taken him to the highest echelons of the art world but his true gift is creating family and community wherever he goes. At a time when the world could not be more divided, he’s chosen to open up his beautiful personal collection and focus on what brings us all together. It’s exactly what the city — and our community — needs at this moment in time.”
A catalog published by Pearl River Mart and Think!Chinatown with an essay by Danielle Wu and an interview between Howie Chen and Arlan Huang will accompany the exhibition. The exhibition is made possible thanks to support of the State of New York and New York State Council on the Arts. It is also supported, in part, by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
“Just Between Us” is on view in the Pearl River Mart Gallery from May 4 through August 27, 2023. Free and open to the public during business hours. An opening reception will be held on May 4 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Attendance is free but registration is required.